Mechanical Engineering '65
Jim Eggers '65 has never been one to come knocking. Long ago he recognized that how a person meets a challenge is often more defining than eventual success or failure.
Born into the world of migrant farm work, Eggers grew up with people who made a living off muscle, sweat and grit. Riding in the back of flat bed trucks following the harvest through the agricultural valleys of southern and central California, he saw how difficult life could be without the essential assistance education can provide.
Even now, as a retired successful businessman who worked his way up from humble beginnings to owner of one of the nation's premier molding operations servicing the food packaging industry, he praises the value of a good education.
From modest beginnings, Jim Eggers became owner of one of the nation's premier molding operations. He and Victoria enjoy retirement on their Texas ranch with one of their award-winning Paint horses, Terrence.
Due to the mobile nature of farm work, Eggers' early education came in different places during different seasons, but when it came time for him to start high school, he told his mother he wanted to attend just one school. So he lived by himself while going to Brawley High School, working a variety of jobs-in the fields, in a welding shop, even building hot rods-in order to have money to live on.
Hard work wasn't just something he did after school. Eggers decided early on at Brawley to take college prep classes-not due to a desire to earn a college degree, but for a more immediate reason.
"I wanted to earn the other kids' respect. I'd carry my Algebra books on the outside so the other kids could see them, see I wasn't some dummy," explains Eggers.
And yet taking those classes led to opportunities that otherwise might never have been available. He eventually did go to college, a four-year experience at Cal Poly Pomona that made a lasting difference in his life.
During his first few days on campus, Eggers and the rest of the freshmen enrolled in mechanical engineering were called together by professor Harvey Mylander.
"He said 'Two-thirds of you sitting in this room will not make it through the curriculum and will not graduate. You need to figure it out quickly because we do not want to waste our time on you,'" says Eggers, his eyes gleaming while recalling the moment. "I said to myself, 'by God I'm going to be part of that one-third that makes it. I'll show you Mylander!'"
Victoria Eggers is leading a restoration of a landmark residence in Kilgore, Texas. "If I can touch someone else's life by helping them, I'll do it," she says.
It would be 36 years before Eggers would return to campus. In January 2002 he and Victoria flew in from Kilgore, Texas, to tour the university's new engineering labs and see what changes time had made.
"To me, it was bigger than life. The way that he's talked about Cal Poly Pomona over the years, it was just bigger than life," says Victoria Eggers. "He was so excited because when he left some 30-odd years before, he never dreamed of returning. He never dreamed of being able to give back in gratitude for all that has happened since he left."
Following the tour and lunch with university President Bob Suzuki and College of Engineering Dean Ed Hohmann, Jim Eggers offered an unexpected gift to his alma mater: a $1 million pledge that included a personal check for $500,000. His only condition was that it be used to help educate students much the same way he had been educated years previously.
It was the second such gift in less than a week made by the Eggers to public education. A few days earlier they had presented Kilgore College-a junior college near their 120-acre east Texas ranch-a $300,000 check as part of a $1.1 million pledge. In both instances, their desire is to help provide educational opportunities for future generations.
"At the turn of the century, if you worked harder than the next guy, you could go a long way. Now technology is the number one factor in the world," says Jim Eggers. "In a complex society, people without education don't understand that."
After graduation, Eggers hired on as an engineer for Western Electric, eventually working in a new plant in Shreveport, La. Nearly two years later, he started Southern Plastics as a job shop doing a variety of projects for other companies. Some of the early work involved molding operations, caps, closures and containers. In the mid-1980s, he began manufacturing tubs for the Dallas-based company making Chiffon Margarine.
Eggers quickly recognized that food packaging was a wide-open field.
"When I got into threaded closures, where all the big companies were, I found it wasn't all that difficult to take business away," he says, insisting that it wasn't so much innovation and simply figuring out how to do the same thing, only better. "I really squeezed them with better quality."
A major success came when he converted Jif peanut butter from lids to plastic caps. At nearly 150 million caps per-year, the contract required Eggers to expand Southern Plastics beyond Shreveport. After checking out several potential sites, he decided to build a second plant about an hour west in Kilgore.
His efforts with Jif put him in good standing with the parent company, Procter & Gamble. And when Kraft Foods took over Chiffon, it led to additional opportunities. Trying for a portion of Kraft's salad dressing caps, he wound up landing the entire account of 450 million caps a year.
Later, he pitched Kraft on the idea of converting its mayonnaise jars from metal lids to plastic, an account involving nearly 350 million wide-mouth lids worth $7 million annually. When Kraft officials voiced concern about the difficulties of conversion, Eggers offered to do it all without any up-front money.
"I said if the production line doesn't run better, they could stay with metal and not pay me," he says. "When I got it, that really shook up the industry. I knew the phone would start ringing. I never had to call anyone after that; they called me."
In August 2000, Alcoa saw expansion potential in Southern Plastics and made the call. Eggers sold the company but agreed to stay on until the end of 2001 to assist with transition.
His mechanical engineering talents have not been limited to just the business. Beyond building machines and factories, he designed and built the spacious showcase home the Eggers live in as well as the hanger for their private jet. And Victoria's love of horses-she is an accomplished competitor in amateur equestrian events, having won the American Paint Horse Association's 2000 national championship-led him to design and build a 20-horse barn and a huge show-quality riding arena on their ranch, as well as the horse-friendly fences that surround their property.
The Eggers recently purchased the Malcolm and Kati Mai Crim House, a historic home sitting on 61/2 acres adjacent to Kilgore College. Both Jim and Victoria are involved with restoring the landmark residence, which will ultimately house the foundation the couple intend to establish. The house will also host numerous charity events-both educational and political in nature-each year. The intention is for the Crim to be a tribute to Kilgore and a place creating educational opportunities for young people.
"Jim isn't interested in having a monument with his name on it. He wants to impact, in some way, struggling students," says Victoria, who earned a degree in broadcast journalism from Auburn University after first attending Southern Methodist University and State University of New York at Albany. "It took me 10 years to get through college, mostly going at night while working fulltime jobs. I wish I'd had someone to help me; so if I can touch someone else's life by helping them, I'll do it."
The Eggers are also involved with starting two new businesses in a pair of vacant buildings in downtown Kilgore. An old-fashioned ice cream parlor will sit adjacent to a private club where adults can enjoy a quiet drink and a relaxing dinner, the idea being to help breathe new life into the community.
"I personally think a project like this can revitalize the downtown area," says Jim Eggers while driving through the quiet commercial district that at one time was home to some of the richest producing oil wells in the world. "There are several towns around this part of Texas that have been restored and they attract a lot of people. I want to get (Kilgore) started and going again."
It's a unique opportunity to be part of something special, to help engineer a new future for the local community. And it's another chance to prove how a public education can make a difference as long as someone has the desire to put it to good use.
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